Thursday, 23 August 2007

Why Wales (2)

So, what makes Wales a nation?

Part of the answer is history. I don't mean the history of (a glorious, independent insert here whatever adjectives you wish) Wales prior to the conquest by the (wicked, evil, insert here etc.) English. That isn’t the reality. Welsh unity was a rare commodity – the Welsh, just like the English, were somewhat prone to fighting amongst themselves much of the time, and for most of its pre-Union history, Wales was a collection of warring princedoms, with an occasional flash of something approaching unity. Nothing exceptional in that – much of England’s history (and for that matter, most of Europe) looks pretty much the same, although England seems to have achieved a greater degree of unity earlier in its history.

Paradoxically, it seems to me that the part of history which establishes what ‘Wales’ is is precisely the part which was intended to extinguish it – namely the Act of Union itself. It was that which defined our territory – not on the basis of language or descent, for many 'Welsh' people of the day would have found themselves in England – but on the basis of a de facto recognition of where authority lay at the time. To be Welsh in this sense is to come from the territory marked out as Wales at a particular point in time, no more, no less.

History is also about shared experiences, some of which are capable of detailed examination, and some of which become a sort of folklore. But a common understanding of where 'we' came from is certainly a major part of the definition of nationality.

The second part, and probably the more important, is self-identity. We are Welsh because we believe ourselves to be so. We may have three million different reasons for so believing – some use language, others geography, others their interpretation or understanding of history. We support the national teams when it comes to sport, we (mostly) support the idea that the Welsh language belongs to this piece of geography in some vague way even if we don’t speak it, we take a certain pride in our national flag and other symbols of nationhood.

That combination of geography and self-identity gives us some sort of common cause, and means that most of us would oppose any attempt to ‘regionalise’ the UK on any basis which did not recognise the historic border, even if we are not nationalists in the classic sense.

But just as we have to selective about our history to justify where Wales is, we also have to be selective about self-identification to justify the concept of Wales as a nation. What if the people of Ynys Môn, for instance – an insular breed at the best of times – decided to self-identify as a distinct nation? Would that be enough to make them a nation? Or what if the Welsh-speaking majority in a handful of counties in the West and North decided that they were a different nation, and wanted an Assembly to run their own affairs? If ‘self-identity’ is ultimately the most important factor in determining nationality, what is the logical basis for rejecting either of these scenarios?

Of course, the boundaries of the UK are the result of the same sort of historical processes as formed the boundaries of Wales, and self-identifying as ‘British’ therefore seems to me to be every bit as valid as self-identifying as ‘Welsh’. And apart from some of the more strident nationalists, who ever decided that people cannot self-identify with two ‘nations’ at the same time?

‘Identity’, or more specifically, ‘national identity’, seems to be something for which many humans yearn, but it is ultimately nothing more than a human construct, based on territorial boundaries (established as a result of wars and accidents), an element of shared history and culture following the establishment of those boundaries, and a large degree of self-identification.

The political debate should surely be less about nationality as such and more about how and where we take the key decisions which affect our lives.

Tuesday, 21 August 2007

Why Wales

More years ago than I care to remember, I studied a module on Logic. (And you thought that blogging was the act of a saddo.) Anyway, the point about syllogisms in particular is that the conclusion is always, and inevitably, true so long as it is wholly contained within the premisses.

Enough theory; the point is that it’s usually not the logic, but the premisses which need to be challenged and tested, but that doesn't always seem to happen. Part of the logic expressed by some nationalists, for instance, runs along the following lines:

Premiss 1: All nations have the right to self-government
Premiss 2: Wales is a nation
Conclusion: Wales has a right to self government.

The logic is absolutely impeccable, but I wonder about the premisses. The first is fairly straightforward, although it really does require a lot more definition of the words ‘right’, ‘nation’, and ‘self-government’. And even without that extra definition, it is surely clear that any ‘right’ to self government also includes the ‘right’ to not seek self-government as well, so that any meaningful debate should be about the pros and cons rather than simply about the 'rights' of the matter, a point on which Glyn Davies, Keir Hardly and Welsh Ramblings seem to be in agreement.

But it is the idea of ‘nationality’ which has always troubled me more.

This little piece from Independence Cymru manages to crystalise an issue which has been bothering me for some time, although not in the way that I suspect its author would have wished.

Wales, the author suggests, is hopelessly split, geographically and linguistically, as well as by class and by culture, to the extent that it needs to be reunited to become a proper nation. If that is the case, then by what definition exactly is it a single nation in the first place? (And surely, it is ‘the Welsh’ rather than ‘Wales’ which is the nation – Wales is just a geographical entity. Two small peninsulars on the western edge of an offshore European island.)

It can't be ethnicity. There is no real ethnic difference between most Europeans, never mind between ‘the Welsh’ and ‘the English’, so that cannot be the basis of defining a nation.

It cannot be language, obviously. When 75% of the population speak only English, the same language as our next-door neighbours, we cannot use language as the basis for a definition of nationality. It could be argued that Welsh is the ‘historic’ language of Wales, and therefore has a special place as our ‘national’ language. True, but that involves choosing a particular point in history when Welsh was current across the whole of Wales, but almost extinct elsewhere, since in earlier times, the same language (more or less) was spoken widely through England and the south of Scotland,making it as much a ‘historic’ language for them as it is for us.

It cannot be hard geographic or economic reasons. Much of North Wales looks naturally towards Liverpool, and much of the south has a great deal in common with the rest of Severnside, and, in strictly economic/ geographical terms, one could make a strong argument for a regionalisation of the UK which completely ignores the ‘national’ question.

Despite that, most of use here in Wales do actually think of Wales in terms of a nation - so why?

Friday, 17 August 2007

Rebel or visionary?

The reaction to Huw Lewis' pamphlet has been interesting. Some of it, of course, has been entirely predictable, with the usual simplistic sloganising, but what I found most interesting is the way in which so many seem to have reacted to what they assume Lewis believes, or to what he has said or done in the past, rather than what he actually said in the pamphlet. This seems, sadly, to be an all too frequent occurrence in Welsh politics, and obstructs rather than promotes political debate and understanding.

There are those who see the pamphlet as being little more than a launch of a leadership campaign by Huw Lewis. I don’t know the man, but everyone tells me that he sees himself as a possible future leader, so perhaps we should indeed interpret it in that context. But, even if it is indeed part of a strategy to challenge for the leadership when Rhodri Morgan steps down, in what way exactly does that make the content itself irrelevant? It doesn’t, of course. The content needs to be considered in its own right, whether Lewis wants to be – or becomes – leader or not.

There are others such as Paul Flynn (whose complacent response must surely have disappointed many) who see this as merely over-analysis of an election defeat. From Flynn’s perspective, the whole election result can be explained away by timing – the timing of Blair’s departure. Welsh Labour needs to do no more that sit back and allow Brown’s popularity to win them the next election. That response will be one which Plaid's strategists in particular will be hoping wins wide support within Welsh Labour.

Some nationalists have been quick to attack the paper and the author by association - associating them particularly with the Welsh Labour MP's who were so vocal in their opposition to the coalition with Plaid, and therefore as being ‘Brit—Nats' (whatever they may be - but I'll leave that one for another day). Lewis certainly agreed with the MP’s on that particular issue; but again, that doesn’t seem to me to be what he’s actually saying in his paper.

On my reading of the actual document, Lewis is arguing for the Labour party in Wales to become more autonomous, and in the process, to be better staffed, more organised, and more creative in its policy making. He certainly has suggested that the Welsh MP’s are more involved in the process – but that needn’t necessarily lead, as Lewis’ detractors have assumed, to the MP’s views having more sway. It could equally lead to a position where, by being more involved in the affairs of a decentralised autonomous Welsh Labour Party, those self-same MP’s are more signed up to working with, rather than against, the wishes of the majority of the party’s AM’s.

In some ways, Labour - although rightfully claiming to be the architect of both the current and the next devolution settlement in Wales - is the party which has adapted least well to the new situation. It is Labour which has shown least autonomy and retained most central control from London. Even the arch-unionist Tories seem to have had a freer hand in drawing up specifically Welsh policy (although the more unkind amongst us might suggest that that’s down to the fact that Wales doesn’t really matter a great deal to their London leadership).

Huw Lewis seems to me to be arguing that Labour need to address that lack of change, by adapting to the new situation in which they find themselves. It is interesting that it is nationalists who have done most to rubbish him. I'm not sure whether that's because they haven't understood him – or simply because they fear a more autonomous Welsh Labour Party.

On one specific point, I have to say that I think that one of Lewis’ suggestions - that Labour can easily win 30 seats with 40% of the vote - is a dangerous basis on which to proceed with an analysis. Mathematically, yes, it's true. But in reality, it has only happened once out of three elections so far, and then only barely so. Whilst all parties surely will enter every election stating clearly that they are fighting with the objective of winning a majority, the election system currently in use militates against that happening most of the time.

Sure, Lewis is right to say that Labour regularly average 48% in Westminster elections; but what the results of the three Assembly elections held to date show is that people have a different perception of them, and are consequently willing to vote in different ways. In addition to that, the electoral system itself makes it harder to turn even 48% support into an overall majority when 20 of the Assembly’s seats are allocated on a different basis.

Lewis may be right, and I may be wrong, but I don’t see any immediate signs that the voting pattern in Assembly elections will revert to Westminster patterns – and I’m not at all sure that it would really be a very good thing if it did anyway.

There are two changes which parties needed to make in adapting to the existence of the Assembly. The first is the need for more autonomy from London for the parties themselves – an area where Plaid inevitably had a head start. The second is in adapting to the idea of governments being chosen through an electoral system which includes a strong element of PR.
If this pamphlet marks the delayed start of a debate within the Labour Party which helps them to make that first adaptation, then surely that is to be welcomed. But they will be foolish if they follow Huw Lewis’ line on the second.

The other big question is whether the Labour Party should really be conducting this debate so publicly. It's always a high risk strategy to do so – and the final judgement can only be made after the event. If Lewis wins the argument, and the Labour Party changes in the way he suggests, then a public debate will probably be seen to have been a good thing. If he loses, he is likely to become even more marginalised; as a rebel who was publicly disloyal. But does he have any other mechanism for raising these issues?

Thursday, 9 August 2007

What is Wigley up to?

The reaction to the speech by Dafydd Wigley at the National Eisteddfod has been mixed, certainly – but reaction there has been. In itself, that is enough to suggest that people are taking Wigley and what he says quite seriously. But what precisely is he trying to achieve? Only he himself can know that for certain, but there are plenty of others willing to venture their opinions, so why not Ceredig too?

Glyn Davies suggests that this is Wigley ‘lining up his tanks’ for 2008 – presumably a hint at a leadership challenge. Ordovicius also suspects a leadership challenge here, or at least raises the question as a possibility.

Huw Lewis sees this as an attempt to split Labour and blame Labour for all the government’s failures. Homage to Catatonia in similar vein describes the speech as pure mischief making on the part of Wigley, and wishes that our politicians in the Bay would be more responsible in their approach to finance.

In a much more analytical piece, Normal Mouth questions why Wigley receives so much attention in the first place, and analyses Wigley’s record. This is an interesting analysis, with much to commend it. There are a few comments that I would challenge though.

The idea of Wigley as ‘even-tempered’ is one that Norm might wish to discuss with a few of Wigley's fellow party members, for starters. I also wonder about Ieuan Wyn Jones’ ‘superior strategic brain’. Whilst Jones is recognised as a tactician par excellence, the long term thinking characterised by the idea of strategy is another matter entirely. His tactics during the recent negotiations to form a government have been widely praised (even though they did not produce the result that he wanted); but does anyone really believe that there is a thought-through longer term strategy beyond getting into government?

And, even though Wigley's record in terms of achievements during his presidency may not look too impressive in Norm's analysis, I am reminded of the fundamental flaw in school league tables, where achievement was measured purely in terms of examination results. Sometimes, keeping things together at all in a school suffering major disadvantages and deprivation can be a bigger achievement than getting a whole host of straight A’s in a school with all the advantages in its favour. Perhaps something similar can be said for leadership of a political party in the bad times.

For myself, I very much doubt that this is the beginnings of a leadership challenge. In the first place, age is against Wigley by now, and in the second, Plaid changed its rules last year to ensure that the ‘leader’ would be the person who led the party’s group in the Assembly – and Wigley failed to regain a seat there in May this year, thus ruling him out of the leader's job.

Having a go at the left within his own party for favouring Red-Green over the Rainbow? Possibly, although I think not. One thing that we can be certain of is that Wigley has his finger on the pulse of his party in Gwynedd, and understands what the ordinary membership there think. He could even be trying to re-assure them in some way. But people tend to forget that Wigley himself has stated that he actually proposed to the Plaid group during the first Assembly that they should offer a coalition to Labour, so the idea of working with Labour is not as anathematic to him as might be supposed.

Making mischief for the Labour party? Certainly – in part at least. He’s been doing that for the last 30 years – so why would anyone expect him to stop now? It’s a deeply ingrained habit, and he and some others in Plaid have long believed that they could drive a wedge between ‘London Labour’ and ‘Welsh Labour’ In that context, he sees an opportunity and takes it. Surprise, surprise. (I’ve never been convinced by the argument, though – I think a lot of Plaid people simply don’t understand the reality and the cohesiveness of the Labour party. They might disagree with each other from time to time, but split? Never.)

I actually think that there may be a much more prosaic interpretation. Normal Mouth asks why Wigley is lionised so much, and his words given such respect. It’s a very valid question, but regardless of the reason, it is so. He has friends in the BBC and even more so in the Western Mail who admire and praise him - and guarantee coverage for his musings. Those who get treated like senior statesmen usually end up behaving as such. Could it not be just that someone who's been told that he's a wise old bird, whose words carry weight, has responded by simply saying what he thinks?

Monday, 6 August 2007

Whose problem is Barnett anyway?

It was interesting to note the way in which a number of anonymous commenters on my previous post seem to have responded to what they assumed me to believe, rather than to what I actually said. (To say nothing of the implicit assumption that anyone who raises any question about the Barnett formula is somehow expecting 'the English' to pay for Wales). I suppose it also does much to justify the fears of those who think it a mistake to raise the issue at this time.

In this regard, it is a pity that the people of the North East of England rejected the Regional Assembly which was on offer to them in 2004. Had that Assembly been established, I think we would have been debating Barnett in a wholly different context, because that new Assembly would also have been raising it as an issue.

There are really only two ways ahead for funding the devolved administrations within the UK. The first is that they are allowed to raise their own taxes, and the second is that they continue to receive a block grant from central government in London.

The first is an entirely rational viewpoint to hold, but implies that self-government goes further and faster than many are ready to accept. The second treats the issue as a UK-wide issue of deciding how to allocate resources to the devolved administrations. My original post started from the assumption that the issue is going to have to be addressed in the latter context, rather than the former.

Much has been made about the fact that spending per head on the areas covered by the Barnett formula (which is not at all the same thing as total government expenditure per head) is higher in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland than in England. Whilst this is incontrovertibly true, it overlooks the fact that there are variations in spending per head within those countries as well – and within England itself.

Spending variations on specific policy areas within the territory of any administration are an entirely natural way to run a country, mirroring needs and circumstances. Some services cost more to provide in rural areas than in urban areas; others cost more in urban areas than rural. Levels of chronic sickness (and therefore health service costs) are not constant across all the nations and regions of the UK. ‘Fairness’ in allocation of resources, does not necessarily equate to ‘equality’ of allocation of resources, considered purely on a ‘£ per head’ basis.

That is particularly the case when one looks at only a subset of government expenditure rather than the totality. In the areas of devolved responsibility, it is clear to me that expenditure is higher in Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland than in England as a whole (although treating England as a single unit in this context masks significant regional differences there as well). Whether the same is true in non-devolved areas of expenditure is a moot point, to which none of us really knows the answer – although of course many claim to do so, based largely on their own political standpoint.

The problem with all this is that, and here I agree with Glyn Davies' response, working out a needs formula is far from being a simple matter. And, returning to my original post, even if a Wales-based review comes up with a consensus view, there seems to be little political prospect of it then being accepted and implemented at a UK level.

And that brings me back to my central concern. If we see Barnett as being a UK issue, to do with how we determine the 'fair' level of resources to be allocated to the nations of the UK (yes, and to the regions of England as well), then it needs to be reviewed at a UK level with buy-in from all concerned, and some sort of commitment to implementation (what Glyn Davies described as ‘binding’). To conduct a review from a purely Welsh perspective - which is what the Assembly government has decided to do - runs the risk of producing a fine report which then gets ignored.

Such a conclusion might give us increased scope for political discussion and argument, and might even allow us to base that discussion around a more objective view, rather than political prejudice - but it won't resolve the issue of fair funding for the Assembly.

Wednesday, 1 August 2007

A right old Barnett

One of the earliest consequences of all the discussions at the Bay has been the cross-party agreement to set up a review of the Barnett Formula. This review has not, however, been universally welcomed. Those who have pressed for the review – mostly Plaid, of course – have been arguing for years that Wales is being robbed by the formula, and that funding to Wales should be increased. The doubters – mostly Labour – have warned that Wales already gets a more generous per capita level of spending than England, and that starting a public discussion on this could lead to Wales losing out.

So who is right? Strangely enough, there is more than a little justification for the arguments on both sides.

Perhaps we should start by reminding ourselves that the creator of the eponymous formula, Joel (now Lord) Barnett himself only ever intended that the formula would be a short-term expedient. Indeed, he is on the record as saying,

“The Formula was intended to be approximately population-based and was intended as a stop-gap until a needs-based system came into operation. In fact, no such change to take account of needs has been made.”

With a statement like that in the public domain, it is surely not surprising that someone would argue that we should do exactly what he always intended – i.e. replace the formula with something that truly reflected needs. And for as long as we fail to address the question of whether the formula does or does not reflect needs, there will be an opportunity here for some to argue that Wales is losing out, and for others to argue that we are being treated over-generously.

From that point of view alone, we should welcome the chance that we are being given for a rational debate on an outdated formula for funding.

But we cannot simply dismiss the fears of those who point out that Wales is currently over-funded, and could therefore lose out from any review. In relation to the areas of expenditure covered by the formula (which is not the same, by a long measure, as total government expenditure), it is clear that expenditure per head in Wales is higher than in England. That is an incontrovertible fact.

Of course there are counter-arguments. We are dealing with numbers and statistics here, and in that realm, a great deal always depends on what assumptions one makes in doing the sums. Plaid supporters will inevitably argue that the excess expenditure of £1,000 per head applies only to the areas of expenditure covered by Barnett (roughly speaking, the areas of responsibility of the old Welsh Office, and hence the Assembly), and that any assessment of whether Wales gains or loses overall from government expenditure must take account of expenditure outside the formula.

This is theoretically a valid standpoint, but doesn’t look terribly relevant to the question of calculating the block grant for the National Assembly, which must inevitably concentrate on those areas of expenditure where power is devolved.

Returning to what Barnett himself said, what is required is a formula based on needs, rather than the one we have, which is essentially based on two factors – population and historical spend. It sounds simple enough, and is difficult to argue rationally against. But it raises political issues which actually go much deeper than mere pounds and pennies – and interestingly, I find myself almost wondering whether the two main protagonists, Plaid and Labour, aren’t taking positions which appear to be at odds with their core beliefs in some ways.

From a Labour perspective, shouldn’t one of the benefits of “the Union” be that Wales should be treated more generously if the level of need can be shown to be higher than in England? And from a Plaid perspective, isn’t it an inevitable result of the constitutional arrangements that they want to see that expenditure in Wales would need to be held within the revenue resources available in Wales?

Over-simplification? Of course. Because laid on top of the question is the spin of the two parties. On the one side, Labour "see, if you become independent, you'll lose the extra spending you get at present", and Plaid's "see how badly we’re treated, they aren’t giving us the money we need and deserve”.

So – Barnett Review – good or bad for Wales? My feeling is that there is a running sore here, which will continue to run for as long as it isn’t addressed. There should be nothing to fear from an objective analysis of an outdated mechanism if that enables more transparency in the way Wales is funded. The problem isn’t so much with the review, as with the political consequences of the outcome.

If the review proves that Wales is over-funded in relation to needs, then Plaid will have to remove a lot of egg from their faces, and the Assembly will need to tighten its belt a little. If the review proves that Wales is under-funded, then Labour will have some explaining to do about why Wales’ needs are so much greater than those of England in the first place, and why they haven’t addressed the issue sooner. Either way, once that embarrassment is out of the way, the sore will be addressed, won't it?

Well, maybe not. What if the review concludes that Wales is indeed losing out, and then London refuses to act? Plaid’s dream – Labour’s nightmare. And quite possibly a realistic outcome of a mature and rational debate. A great deal of work on Barnett was done by the late Dr Phil Williams during the first Assembly – and there can be few in Wales who would challenge Dr Phil’s mathematical ability.

I think the one thing that we should really fear is that Wales arrives at a consensus view of whether Barnett is fair or right – and London then refuses to deal with the consequences. I’m afraid that I suspect that that is the real fear of many in Labour about the review. But it’s too late to stop the review now, and scare-mongering won’t help. What the Labour doubters need to be doing now is starting to work on Brown and London to be ready to respond positively to the conclusions of the review.